The views are wide open, writes Stephanie Holmes.
When the view is this good, why obscure it with walls or blinds or curtains or doors? You should be able to carry on staring out to sea — to the islands and inlets making up the north eastern side of Russell — while you're in the bath, the shower, even on the toilet.
This is the magic of Donkey Bay Inn, a boutique hotel owned by Northland-based Italian winemaker Antonio Pasquale, which will celebrate its first anniversary in December.
Boutique is a word freely bandied about these days, but here it is used in its truest sense — the inn has only three rooms (with a fourth being built), and is like nothing you've seen anywhere else in New Zealand.
We arrive late on a Friday under the cloak of darkness and heavy drizzle that has followed us from Auckland, so we have no idea what magic lies beyond the balcony of our suite. We can hear the waves and the odd shriek of kiwi, so we know we're by the sea and the bush, but the rest is left to our imagination.
It's not till the morning light starts to creep over the distant hills on the first day of spring, that the vista is revealed in all its glory. This is a view to covet — across to Long Beach, down to Waitata Bay, and out to Donkey Bay's bush-clad headland — so named for its role as a lookout post during World War II, when donkeys would be used to cart ammunition and goods over the rocky outcrop. Further in the distance, the mill-pond ocean is dotted with islands, hemmed in by the curves of coastline.
The inn's style is eclectic, ostentatious and impossible to recreate, yet still completely tasteful — a trick only an Italian could master. A huge print of Princess Margaret on water skis, with the addition of a pink floral swimming cap, hangs in the lounge, where you'll also find a full-sized taxidermied peacock. A metre-high gold Jesus statue stands at an altar; a black bass drum is turned on its side to make a coffee table; a row of three theatre seats, all plump, plush velvet, line the hallway next to a rocking horse on a ceiling-high stack of vintage suitcases. Books are everywhere — on shelves and artfully arranged piles on the numerous occasional tables dotted around.
The inn is completely off the grid, with solar power and a dense living roof of native plants. There's a vineyard, olive groves and beehives on the property; Pasquale also has vines in Central Otago; try his pinot noir and arneis— they're delicious.
We're staying in the Skyfall suite, which undoubtedly has prime position for making the most of this view. It's certainly a showstopper, but one for those not afraid of their own appearance — there are no curtains to hide behind and the four poster bed is flanked to the left and right by floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The bathroom, although beautiful and spacious, with those to-die-for views, has no door and the wall doesn't meet the roof. Be prepared to get to know your partner very well.
We pad down the heavy wooden staircase for breakfast, which Matt, the inn manager, has laid out for us in the sunny kitchen. While we feast on homemade muesli, croissants, ham and cheeses, Matt makes us coffee and talks about his former life, working for Anouska Hempel — aka Lady Weinberg, the infamous Kiwi actress-turned-hotelier, who established one of the world's first luxury boutique hotels, Blakes in London. Matt worked for her there, and he tells us stories about meeting Princesses Margaret and Diana, and drinking JD and Cokes with Stevie Nicks. His enthusiasm is palpable — for his job, for Pasquale, for the inn, for Russell — and it feels like we're having breakfast with an old friend.
We're loathe to go out for the day, especially when the sun is bathing Skyfall in a particularly crisp golden light, but we decide to go into Russell to explore, and end up hiring electric bikes for a jaunt around. Word to the wise: even with full-power assist mode and a moderate amount of fitness, getting up Flagstaff Hill is a particular kind of hell I hope never to revisit.
We make our way out to Paroa Bay winery — a decent 10km stretch where the hills are plentiful and punishing; we strive up and freewheel down, enough time to catch our laboured breath before the next incline looms ahead. By the time we return them two hours later, our legs are like jelly and our lungs are burning, but we've fully earned the pints of McLeod's Longboarder lager and Paradise pale ale (made in nearby Waipu) that we guzzle at the Duke of Marlborough hotel.
Back at the inn, we settle in with a bottle of red wine, a cheese platter and some good books, content to laze in our luxurious surroundings while we still can.
The first day of spring was a good one; with luck, a good omen for the summer to come.
One-night at Donkey Bay Inn is from $900, twin share, including breakfast and welcome drink on arrival.